MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. -- Katherine Webster is a Bay Area technology veteran with a career that includes 16 years at Sun Microsystems. But when she looked around her industry, she didn't see anyone throwing out the welcome mat for military veterans.
"We have organizations like Women in Tech, Teens in Tech and other affinity groups, but why aren't we doing more to get veterans into our community?" Webster said.
She's working to change that as founder of Vets in Tech, a grass-roots project with the goal of demystifying the high-tech world for veterans interested in getting their boots in the door of Silicon Valley, and beyond.
The 16-month-old group, which has the backing of A-list technology gurus like Craig Newmark of Craigslist as well as companies such as Cisco, HP, Facebook and Intuit, is launching an expansion Thursday to six other markets around the country -- just in time for Veterans Day.
"We're creating an ecosystem to help them get the skills they need, give them confidence, the ability to speak corporate," said Chris Galy, a West Point graduate and director of talent acquisition for Intuit. "We want to do everything possible to make them more employable. We're trying to provide them with a Silicon Valley mindset."
For Navy veteran Scott Deming, attending a Vets in Tech coding workshop in San Francisco in 2012 led him to a career change from studying film at the Academy of Art University to now working as a field engineer in New York City for systems management company Argent.
"It wasn't just taking a class," said Deming, 35. "The real value is they care who you are, were interested in what you wanted to do and then connected you to other veterans and companies. It's hard when you transition out of the military because you're trained to follow. But these are leaders who can help you get into IT."
About 2.6 million Americans have served in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. But the people who have made some of the greatest sacrifices in the post-9/11 era, also are the ones struggling the most with unemployment today.
While the latest national jobless figure is 7.2 percent, the rate for new veterans is much higher -- 9.7 percent. And with the end of the war in Iraq and the current drawdown in Afghanistan, more than 1 million service members either have left the military or are projected to transition out through 2016.
Webster looks at those figures and sees a need for their matchmaking organization that can connect newer veterans with unfilled jobs in high tech.
"I was watching stories about all these veterans returning and looking at my father's military pictures and thought, 'I'm in the middle of tech. How can I help?' " said Webster, whose dad served in the Korean War. "This generation pretty much grew up with tech with smartphones, games and social media. They really understand it, and they have all of these other talents -- leadership, discipline, work ethic."
The problem is, many veterans either don't realize how skills learned in the military translate to the tech workplace, or are unable to communicate their qualifications to prospective employers.
Lance Sapera spent 21 years in the Navy, rising to the rank of commander. Yet as he neared his March 2007 separation, he found himself "intimidated" by the prospect of finding a job in the private sector. Sapera, who ended his military career as the Navy's top recruiter in Northern California, was working as an executive with 24 Hour Fitness when he heard about a hackathon -- a weekend entrepreneurial brainstorming session -- that Vets in Tech sponsored at Facebook earlier this year.
"I'm not a coder or a developer," Sapera said. "But everybody was so welcoming. 'You don't know anything about coding? That's OK, we need ideas.' It was real collaborative. It immediately broke down some of those intimidating barriers."
Sapera became an example of the Vets in Tech philosophy of assisting one veteran at a time with a personal touch. That event helped him sharpen his resume and job pitch, and he made contacts that helped him land a job in talent acquisition at ManpowerGroup Solutions.
Vets in Tech doesn't do job fairs, which Webster sees as veterans standing "in a big line with a piece of paper." Rather, the focus is on building relationships. That includes "basic training" where they teach introductory coding skills and invite tech experts to speak to veterans about the industry.
"We're trying to create that bridge and connect vets to people who can talk about what technology is, here are some classes you take, here's the advice you need to get started," said Galy, a member of the Vets in Tech advisory board.
The organization has no data on how many veterans it has helped find employment, but the reason for the national rollout is because there is growing interest.
"The cool thing about going national is vets don't have to move to the most expensive place in the country," Webster said. "They can start where they live."